Business

Marlene Street-Forrest — breathing life into stocks and shares

Business Leader: Executive Steward Nominee #2

BY MOSES JACKSON

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

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Today the Jamaica Observer publishes the second of 12 stories on the nominees for this year's Business Leader Award being held under the theme 'Business Leader: Executive Steward'. The nominees are among the top CEOs in Jamaica.

As I settled down for my interview with one of the nominees for the Business Leader Award, I was bombarded with a barrage of questions by one of his aides who appeared to be on a mission to unmask the full list of executives who are being considered for the award.

The information she feverishly sought is proprietary and jealously guarded, so I dutifully parried the line of enquiry. But in a fleeting moment of indiscretion I let loose the tantalising possibility of there being as many as three females within the group of 12.

A particularly perceptive woman, this information — albeit minimal — was enough for her. She immediately seized on it and blurted out, “Marlene Street!” adding the name of the managing director of the Jamaica Stock Exchange (JSE) to the list of nominees that she had been privately compiling.

It was a pregnant moment. I was at once dismayed and pleasantly surprised, for Street-Forrest, who has been at the helm of the exchange since 2004, has generally eschewed public limelight.

Yet there was no way for her to hide the transformational changes that her stewardship has wrought across the stock market and for there to be public reckoning of these achievements with the person leading the institution.

Street-Forrest, an accountant by training, joined the JSE in September 2000 and was named general manager four years later. She is now its managing director.

Like all stock markets and the companies that promote them — in our case the JSE — there are several major quantitative indices that tell the story of their growth and impact over time, and the data underlying the progress of Jamaica's exchange is nothing short of stunning.

But the more compelling story is how Street-Forrest brought to bear her innovative thinking and natural affinity for working with staff, board members and stakeholders in the industry — resulting in the exponential expansion of the market's reach, impact, and participation rate over the past decade and a half.

First, the unvarnished numbers: In the year 2000, the 44 companies (there were 62 securities) that were listed produced trading volume of 695 million valued $3.44 billion. For the 10 months so far into this year, the 67 listed firms have recorded trading volume of 3.2 billion valued $35 billion. Today, publicly traded institutions boast a combined value, as measured by their stock price, of nearly $1.2 trillion compared with market capitalisation — the preferred terminology within the trade — of $160 billion at the end of 2000.

Moreover, the JSE Index — the single most vital data point on how well the stock market has done for the thousands of investors who place their bet on its continued upward trajectory — has leapt tenfold; from 28,893 in December 2000 to 292,895 at the end of October this year.

The day Street-Forrest took up her post as deputy general manager in 2000 the JSE was a single-market operation and institution. Now it is beginning to look and feel more like a miniaturised version of the New York Stock Exchange, boasting four markets — a junior market, one for US dollars and another for bonds in addition to the main market.

Street-Forrest's early presence at the JSE coincided with the first phase of the institution's ambitious developmental drive to drag its operation into the 21st century.

It began with the implementation of electronic trading.

“This in itself revolutionised the market,” she notes. “By just implementing electronic trading we were able to process hundreds of millions of trades and were able to move from three trading days to five trading days.”

Once she was promoted to general manager in 2004, one of her first priorities was to fix what she complained to have been a lack of “capacity-building programmes and confidence-building structures” at the exchange.

Street-Forrest readily understood that there was plenty of work to be done if equities were to evolve from the arcane pastime of the few gurus to a robust investment option that was within the grasp of the ordinary folk. She and her management team got busy.

The stock market game, which was introduced in 2008, attracted participation from 86 high schools and had the unambiguous objective of laying the foundation for a future generation of investors.

This is how Street-Forrest explains it: “The Stock Market Game for High Schools ... is designed to strengthen students' critical thinking skills and build confidence and self-esteem... and to instil an understanding of the need to save and invest at an early age and ensure that when students leave high school they have the basic knowledge of how to buy and sell shares.”

An interactive website, online trading portal, and e-campus offering postgraduate diplomas and workshops had the effect of taking the concept of stocks and shares right into people's homes and workplaces.

Yet Street-Forrest's most direct pitch to the general public came in 2007 with the launch of the National Investor Education Week, part of her institution's mandate “to educate the general population on the importance of savings and investments as the means to wealth creation”.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of this annual event.

The numerous programmes, conferences and seminars introduced by the JSE have undoubtedly helped to build public awareness, understanding, and confidence in stocks as an important vehicle for wealth creation and have contributed to the exchange's increasing vibrancy. But these initiatives, individually or collectively, are by no means counted among the more transformative ideas for which Street-Forrest and her team can rightly take credit.

Arguably, the junior stock market, unveiled with great promise and fanfare in 2008 — and rightly so — will go down as the single most fundamental development at the JSE since its founding over 50 years ago. This initiative overshadowed what was, in its own right, another major development at the exchange that very same year — its demutualisation and conversion to a limited liability for-profit enterprise.

The Junior Market has been a boon for the exchange and the country's investment community.

“It was my idea at the time to start the Junior Market, and I got the support from the board,” says Street-Forrest. “Ideas need drivers and there were several persons who assisted with driving the programme, internal and external to the exchange.”

The Junior Market of the Stock Exchange was designed to induce small to medium entrepreneurs to list their companies by providing them with generous profit tax incentives — a benefit to which the Jamaican Government had to agree.

So far, 32 companies have listed, and their presence at the exchange has had a profound impact on the overall market performance.

“This market has not only been a beacon for the local economy, but internationally,” beams Street-Forrest. “I have been invited across the globe to speak about the junior market and the JSE in general. The Junior Market has been performing extremely well, with 32 companies listed and many more listings are in the pipeline. The Junior Market is now rivalling the main market in terms of listings. The Junior Market performance assisted the JSE to become the number one performing market in the world in 2015.”

The term Jamaica Stock Exchange is admittedly a confounding nomenclature; it references alternatively the institution and the marketplace it promotes and in which it operates.

On the one hand, the JSE is a limited liability company — with the beneficial owners being the stockbrokerage firms that operate on the exchange as well as many individual investors because it is actually listed on its own stock exchange.

As a corporation, it is responsible managing the stock market, or what many people loosely refer to as the stock exchange. It operates the four markets in which investors participate. It provides the portal for buyers and sellers to transact the business of trading stocks, and regulates both the firms that are listed on the exchange and the brokers who provide services to the investors.

“As a company, our revenue is derived from the services we offer to both the listed companies and the brokers,” explains Street-Forrest. “This represents a major source of the revenue of the business. The JSE looks to other complementary sources of revenue to grow our business.”

The past few years have witnessed a burst of novel initiatives at the exchange aimed at broadening the range of investments opportunities available to Jamaicans.

One example is the US-denominated market that Street-Forrest and her team introduced in 2013 “to fulfil the needs of individuals who needed to hold instruments in US dollars or for companies that wanted to raise capital in US dollars”.

The managing director can also take credit for the bond market that was launched in 2013, as well as the teamwork that she fostered that same year to take investments to the Diaspora market through the online trading portal and platform. The idea, she explains, was to create “an easy and convenient way to buy and sell securities on the exchange, from whichever location”.

Again, in 2016, the exchange moved to meet the needs of another market segment with the launch of the JSE App. This, according to Street-Forrest, was “in direct response to the need for convenience and people having information about the markets at their fingertip”.

All of this is not to say that there aren't challenges to overcome. Indeed, the current three-day settlement period for transactions is out of step with the best international practices, and the local market remains illiquid.

A solution is already in the making.

“In 2017, we are working on reducing the settlement cycle from T+3 to T+2 in line with international trends and as a means of improving the liquidity in the market,” notes Street-Forrest, referring to the fact financial settlement now takes three days after a trade is executed. “This reduced settlement cycle will have a positive impact on the market's liquidity and cash management.”

While Street-Forrest has maintained a close eye on the operational details, she has not lost her essential quality as a big-vision executive. Among her to-do list is cross-listing with Canada, and for the exchange to take a deep dive into more esoteric products like short selling and margin trading.

“I dream, I transmit, and encourage the employees to share in the vision to be the best securities market in the world,” she declares. “Many of the changes have been my vision, but a visionary board and a superb team support them,” she adds. “I seek new avenues to grow the company and encourage local and overseas participation in our market. I solve problems and guide the staff also to do so, and ensure that the strategies that have been crafted are realised. I encourage teamwork and work with them to use technology to be relevant.”

Moses Jackson is the founder of the Business Leader Award programme and chairman of the Award Selection Committee. He may be reached at moseshbsjackson@yahoo.com

— Freelance journalist Nazma Muller contributed to this story.

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